It is now four weeks into the high school football season, and teams have pretty much established an identity.
Braden River High looks like a contender while Lakewood Ranch High and The Out-of-Door Academy have had their struggles. Here's the one big question each team has to answer if it expects to make the postseason.
Braden River High (2-1)
Can the Pirates take advantage of the opportunities they create?
Failing to do so against Manatee High (4-0) on the road Sept. 16 is the thing that has kept the Pirates from an undefeated record. The Pirates lost 28-20 to one of the best teams on the Gulf Coast and while there's not inherently any shame in that, Braden River had chances to do more than keep it close.
Down 7-0, the Pirates faced a fourth and goal from Manatee's 1-yard line in the first quarter. Braden River's run attempt was stuffed. Later, when the Pirates scored in the third quarter to make it a 21-13 game, the Pirates couldn't hold on defense, giving up a touchdown that killed momentum.
After the team's 41-23 win over Lakewood Ranch High on Sept. 8, Braden River Head Coach Curt Bradley was upset that his team did not play "complementary football," with the offense helping the defense and vice versa. The Manatee game was another example of Braden River not being able to put together a solid effort in all aspects of the game — offense, defense and special teams.
The Pirates have talent, but it all needs to work in sync to put the Pirates on an elite level. Can that happen? Sure. The Pirates are playing many players who are getting their first taste of the varsity level. Games like the Manatee loss will hurt, but also serves as lessons for the future. Staying within eight points of Manatee, which now holds a 147-68 point differential in 2023, on the road is a sign that Braden River is a very good team. The Pirates need to tighten things in all aspects, and if they do, a deep playoff run is not out of the question.
Lakewood Ranch High (1-3)
Can the Mustangs build around their rushing attack?
Lakewood Ranch struggled to score in its first three games, though it did find a few things that worked in its loss to Braden River. One of those was senior running back Simon Freed, who took over the starting position because of injuries and has wrestled control of it. Freed had 90 yards rushing and a touchdown against the Pirates, and he had an even bigger impact in the team's first win of the season, a 47-7 road win over IMG Academy Blue on Sept. 15. In that game, Freed had 202 yards and three touchdowns.
For weeks, Lakewood Ranch Head Coach Scott Paravicini has talked about finding pieces of the puzzle. The Mustangs entered the season without much of an identity, and Paravicini wanted to see which of his units played well enough to establish that identity. Based on the IMG Blue win, it appears Freed and the Mustangs' offensive line should be the focal point.
The focus on the running game appeared to help everything else. Senior quarterback Sebastian Mejia was efficient in a supporting role, completing eight of 13 passes for 130 yards and a touchdown to senior receiver Jaron Fields. Thanks to Lakewood Ranch controlling things on the ground — and thus controlling the clock — the Mustangs' defense was able to get rest, which in turn helped them clamp down the Ascenders' offense, which had just 145 total yards. Lakewood Ranch also intercepted two passes.
Lakewood Ranch will face better teams, so don't expect 47-7 wins every week, but a strong rushing attack can be a way for the Mustangs to grind out wins in 2023. A home game against Lyman High (3-1) at 7 p.m. Sept. 22 will be a big test.
The Out-of-Door Academy (1-2)
Where has the running attack gone?
In a reversal of Lakewood Ranch's question, ODA has to fix its ground game if it wants to be a factor in the postseason. In the team's surprising 9-1 season in 2022, ODA ran for 2,960 yards at eight yards per carry, adding 44 touchdowns along the way. Leading rusher Griffin DeRusso (1,444 yards) is gone, but the entire offensive line that paved the way last season has returned in 2023. Yet for some reason, the rushing attack has struggled.
Instead of eight yards per carry, the team is getting 5.3 yards per carry, and it only has four rushing touchdowns through three games — all four of which came in the first week victory against Berean Christian. Since then, junior quarterback Jackson Roth has thrown a touchdown to senior receiver Jack Meyers, and senior linebacker Jack Taraska has a fumble return for a touchdown. That has been the extent of the team's points.
Defensively, things seem about the same as 2022. Even in losses, ODA has limited Saint Stephen's Episcopal (3-1) to 21 points and Oasis High (3-1) to 16 points. But it is hard to win football games without scoring and ODA hasn't even been able to reach double digits.
The ODA coaching staff is excited about what Roth can bring in the passing game, but as it is his first season playing American football after moving from Canada, an adjustment period was expected. It is the running game that needs to click.
In that respect, the team's off week this past week came at the right time. Playing an eight-game schedule, ODA can't afford many more losses. A road game against Faith Christian (2-1) at 7 p.m. Sept. 22 will be a chance for the Thunder rushing attack to show it can get back to being the dominant unit it was in 2022.
Ryan Kohn is the sports editor for Sarasota and East County and a Missouri School of Journalism graduate. He was born and raised in Olney, Maryland. His biggest inspirations are Wright Thompson and Alex Ovechkin. His strongest belief is that mint chip ice cream is unbeatable.